Comment: Covid-19 is over!

With the end of the final pair of pandemic-related protections – case isolation and masks in healthcare settings – the Government is keen to move on and put the virus behind us.

“It has been a long road, however thanks to lots of hard work, New Zealand’s Covid-19 approach has moved from an emergency response to sustainable long-term management,” Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said.

That will be cold comfort for the families of the 621 people who have died as a result of Covid-19 this year, or for whom the disease was a contributing factor in their death. Nor will it reassure the nearly 7000 people who have been admitted to hospital for Covid-19-related reasons or the tens of thousands of people with Long Covid from infections this year, a large subset of whom will be debilitated for months or years because of the condition.

* Covid ‘normal’ in the eye of the beholder
* We must learn to live with the road toll*

The reality is that while Covid-19 is no longer the threat it was in 2020 or even during the massive Omicron waves of 2022, neither is it a trifling concern. While public health experts will be quick to dispute comparisons to the flu in part because the burden of that illness is more significant than we might have appreciated before the pandemic, it’s clear that Covid-19 is still causing significantly more harm than any other infectious disease. This is no “bad flu”.

Insisting that Covid-19 can and will fade to the background is gaslighting. The statistics on the harm of this disease are inarguable, whatever ministers may say to distract from them. Scrapping the remaining measures protecting the public from Covid-19 is foolhardy and inconsistent with the approach we take to other threats to our collective welfare.

Consider the Road to Zero campaign, which received a $2.9 billion injection last year. How many people have died on our roads in 2023? A tragic 206 – too many, but just one third of the Covid-19 toll we’ve seen this year.

Yet no one in their right mind would suggest we remove the ban on driving drunk (which, like isolation, exists primarily to prevent people from harming others). We even mandate wearing a seatbelt, even though the benefits of that measure are mostly enjoyed by the people subject to the requirement.

It’s unclear why there is one rule for Covid-19 (namely, that there should be no rules) and one for every other public safety issue.

The public hunger to return to “normal” on Covid-19 is not something we’ve seen when previous events have shattered our preconceptions of safety. The September 11 terror attacks were more than two decades ago, but we’re not in a rush to rip metal detectors out of airports. Nor is there a desire from the vast majority of people to roll back the gun laws introduced after March 15.

Despite what Verrall might say, we aren’t moving to “long-term management” of Covid-19, we are instead embarking on long-term plugging our ears to it. Management would imply a plan to reduce its impacts at least on the most vulnerable and to aid those suffering from grievous cases of Long Covid.

That’s what is so disheartening about the second element scrapped on Monday. Some of those who have the greatest need to access healthcare in our society are also the most exposed to serious illness from the virus. There is no logical justification for the removal of the mask mandate in health settings, when we know Covid-19 is more prevalent among health workers and when the requirement is so insignificant.

Is wearing a mask for a half-hour when one sees the doctor so onerous and rights-limiting that removing it justifies potentially landing someone else in hospital?

The Government will point to what is rightly considered a world-leading Covid-19 response, when criticised for Monday’s decisions. But since the virus became endemic in New Zealand last year, we have taken a world-following approach, eagerly if slightly belatedly diving after the rest of the world in trying our utmost to forget the pandemic ever happened.

If we learned in the first 18 months of the pandemic response valuable lessons for how to deal with an uncertain but serious threat, there’s very little educational value in what happened over the next 18 months.

New Zealand had an opportunity to engage in “long-term management” of Covid-19 through structural and societal changes – improving ventilation in key settings so they are safe without a mask, financially supporting isolation over the long haul and adopting a culture of mask-wearing when the time or environment demands it.

Had we done that, we could go on enjoying a “world-leading” status, with very little infringement on our freedoms or way of life. Sure, things would be a little different, but the world was struck by a pandemic that killed at least nine million people. Who wouldn’t expect a few changes after that?

Change isn’t inherently bad and the pre-pandemic norm isn’t innately good. There was a middle ground open to us, in which we protected the vulnerable while enjoying life as almost-normal.

This isn’t about lockdowns and border closures. It’s about common sense and sustainable measures.

Something more than burying our heads in the sand.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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